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9-08-2015, 16:52

Europeans in the Americas: conquerors and miners

Spanish conquests in the Caribbean and in Central and South America were like the Portuguese conquests in the Indian Ocean area in many ways. They were quick and ruthless, depended on military technology, and took advantage of hostilities that already existed among different groups of native peoples. The Spanish, and later other groups of Europeans, had one weapon in the Americas that the Portuguese did not have in Africa and Asia, however – germs. Tropical diseases kept Europeans out of the interior of sub-Saharan Africa until the development of modern medicines to prevent and combat them, but the picture was different in the Americas, where the impact of European voyages was devastating, even for people who never saw a ship or a soldier. Europeans brought with them diseases that were common in Eurasia, such as measles, mumps, bubonic plague, influenza, and smallpox, against which natives of the Americas had no resistance. These diseases spread through the Caribbean islands, and then in the more densely populated areas of Central and South America, killing more than 90 percent of the local population in some places. Once Europeans reached the mainland of Central and South America in the late 1490s and early 1500s, diseases often spread ahead of actual groups of explorers or soldiers. For germs to be transmitted, only a few or even one native person had to come into contact with a Spanish landing party and then return to their village, spreading germs to other people as they did normal things like preparing food, carrying children, or talking about what they had seen. People became sick and died quickly, so that when European troops got to an area several weeks or months later, they found people who were already weak and fewer in number. This dramatic drop in population allowed the Spanish and Portuguese, and later the French, English, and Dutch, to set up land-based empires, not simply a string of trading posts. Soldiers and explorers were given positions as governors or royal offi cials, and settlers arrived soon afterwards. Both guns and germs were important in the European conquest of the two largest New World empires, the Aztecs in central Mexico, and the Incas in the Andes. The way these empires had grown before the Spanish landed also helps explain why small European forces succeeded so easily. Both the Aztecs and the Incas built their empires through military conquest in the fi fteenth and early sixteenth centuries; their neighbors resented their power and their demands for tribute, so they often helped the Spanish or became their allies. The Aztec Empire was founded by the Mexica people, who migrated into central Mexico from the north around 1300, settling on the shores and islands of Lake Texcoco in the central valley of Mexico. Here they built their capital city of Tenochtitlán, which by 1500 was probably larger than any city in Europe except Istanbul. As they migrated, the Aztecs conquered many neighboring tribes, and war came to be seen as a religious duty. The Aztecs believed that the all-important sun god Huitzilopochtli demanded the sacrifi ce of captured warriors and other youthful victims to maintain his energy, so that crops would grow and life continue. Because of this, Aztec warriors took prisoners instead of killing defeated soldiers, and demanded that conquered tribes pay tribute and supply additional people for ritual sacrifi ce. In the Andes, the Inca Empire fi rst grew up around Lake Titicaca, and in the fi fteenth century expanded its territory; by 1520 it stretched for 3,000 miles along the west coast of South America. Like the Aztecs, the Incas associated themselves with the sun god, whom they called Inti, though Inti did not require human sacrifi ce. They saw their emperor, also known as the Inca, as the link between people on earth and the sun in the sky. The Incas demanded tribute and taxes from the groups they conquered in the form of crops and forced labor (termed the m’ita system). One of the most important tasks throughout the Inca Empire was building and maintaining an extensive system of roads and bridges, along which were special huts for runners who carried oral messages to the runner in the next hut, a sort of pony express on foot. This system allowed news to travel about 150 miles a day, but it would also allow infectious diseases to be carried just as swiftly. In the decades after Columbus’s fi rst voyage, Spanish settlements in the New World were limited to islands in the Caribbean, though explorers went back and forth to the American mainland several times. Spanish horses and Spanish soldiers gradually grew more accustomed to tropical climates, and in 1519 Hernando Cortés (1485–1547) led a group of 600 men and several hundred horses to the Mexican coast. He made allies among the Tlaxcalan and other native peoples who opposed the Aztecs, particularly after he used cannon to bombard the villages of those who did not side with him. By the time he reached Tenochtitlán, he had several thousand troops. The Aztec emperor Moctezuma let Cortés and his followers into the city, but, like the Portuguese in China, the Spanish behaved badly to their hosts, and they were thrown out in a bloody battle. They left behind an invisible enemy, however, in the form of smallpox germs, and many people sickened and died. Cortés gained more allies from among the Aztecs’ enemies, and after a long battle took Tenochtitlán from the weakened Aztec forces. He and his allies then fought Aztec armies in other areas, and by 1521 he had taken permanent control of the whole empire. He shipped Aztec art back to Europe, where it was seen and appreciated by Renaissance artists, including Albrecht Dürer. About ten years later, the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro ( 1478?–1541) conquered the Inca Empire. Pizarro had become rich after settling in Panama City, where he heard stories of a fabulous empire somewhere to the south. He organized several expeditions to search for this empire, and in 1532 captured one of the Inca leaders, Atahualpa (1500?–33), and killed thousands of Incas. Pizarro had even fewer men than Cortés, but the Spanish took the Incas by surprise in this attack. The Incas themselves were not united, as the powerful emperor Huayna Capac (ruled 1493–1525) had recently died in a plague – perhaps one that came to America with the Spanish – and not all Incas backed Atahualpa. Atahualpa paid a huge ransom for his release, but the Spanish killed him anyway. Pizarro founded the city of Lima as Peru’s capital, and the Spanish used this as a base for the exploration and conquest of most of South America. King Charles I of Spain made Pizarro governor of Peru, but he was killed a few years later by another Spanish explorer who wanted to be governor. King Charles I – the same King Charles who became the German emperor, listened to Luther, and sent Magellan – also made Cortés governor of Mexico, which was renamed New Spain. In both Peru and Mexico, the Spanish founded new towns, built Christian churches, and set up agricultural plantations like those in the Caribbean. Spanish conquerors and settlers were given large estates and rights to the labor of native people through an encomienda system modeled on that fi rst established in the Caribbean. Along with ministering to immigrants, Spanish clergy began preaching to the local residents, fi rst in Spanish, which few people understood, and then in the languages spoken in the Americas as the missionaries learned them. They set up missions away from the new Spanish towns and from existing Indian villages, trying to convert native people to Christianity and to teach them European ways; these missions took people away from their own culture, but also protected them from plantation owners who wanted to enslave them. The discovery of silver mines in northern Mexico and in the Andes Mountains of Peru speeded up the pace of conquest. As we discussed in chapter 6 , though merchants and bankers in Europe and Asia sometimes used paper forms of money for complex business transactions, most buying and selling was done in coins, and most of these were silver, which people also used to pay their taxes. More silver meant more coins available, and also more taxes for the government, which taxed both mining and trade. The Spanish government saw the silver mines as a great opportunity, and gave the rights to mine silver to private investors in exchange for 20 percent of the silver they mined. Mine owners brought in managers with experience of mining in Europe, together with machinery and materials for smelting silver ore to make it pure, and imported goods so they could live like the elites of Europe; they organized the mines as capitalist enterprises, just as mines were organized in Europe. The government wanted to make sure this silver got back to Europe, so they built forts, encouraged the construction of sturdier ships and better weapons, and hired soldiers. In the Andes, they adapted and expanded the Inca system of forced labor, drafting Indians through the encomienda system to mine and transport silver from the unbelievably rich mines at Potosí. The Indians were also forced to mine mercury, which was needed to extract the silver from silver ore but is highly poisonous. Mission priests sometimes objected to these harsh demands, but the government replaced them with priests who were more willing to follow orders. The Spanish government could do nothing about the spread of germs, however. Dangerous conditions in the mines and poisoning from the mercury used to smelt silver combined with disease to kill people even faster. Especially in the Andes, people fl ed to remote villages rather than work in mines, and there were never enough Spanish troops to force their return. The Spanish brought in African slaves from their Caribbean colonies, for they would not have local family connections and so would fi nd it harder to run away, but they also died in great numbers. The mine owners responded to problems in fi nding and keeping workers by trying new types of more effi cient machinery, and eventually by providing wages and improved working conditions. The forced labor of native people survived in some areas until the eighteenth century, however, and the enslavement of Africans even longer. Spanish offi cials had originally imagined that their colonies in Central and South America would contain separate communities of Europeans and Indians, and a hundred years after conquest this was true to some degree. By about 1600 there were perhaps 200,000 people in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies who were, or pretended to be, of purely European ancestry. They lived in cities, wore clothing made of English wool or Chinese silk, ate from Dutch dishes, drank sweet Portuguese wine, and worshipped in churches designed by Italian architects. This European minority held the positions of power in the government, church, and private business. Away from the cities, there were millions of people of purely Indian ancestry living in villages, hunting or raising the same animals and growing the same crops they had for centuries. This was especially true in areas such as the Amazon River basin where there were no precious metals and there was no possibility of growing sugar. European diseases had killed people even in the remotest areas, but offi cials or soldiers rarely traveled in these areas, and even missionaries were very few. The number of European women who migrated to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies was much smaller than the number of men, however, so this separation between Native Americans and Europeans was impossible to maintain. European men entered into relationships with indigenous women, and a mixed society developed, especially in and around mining towns and the new cities. African slaves and their children added to this mixture, so that increasing numbers of people in Central and South America were of mixed race, termed castas or mestizos . Spanish and Portuguese authorities, and the Catholic Church, were forced to develop policies and institutions to regulate a society very different from the one they had envisioned, a process we will discuss in more detail in chapter 13 .

 

 

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